The subject of guilt and responsibility has comes up recently in
conversation with a couple of friends in Bosnia. For those who
ponder the responsibility of a population for the actions of its
representatives this question, in fact, never goes away.
Generally, even in societies that are not considered
"democratic," people have ways to influence the actions of their
government. With influence comes responsibility, and then there
are uncomfortable questions that come along with this
responsibility. For example, most educated people ordinarily are
reluctant to assign collective responsibility to an ethnic or
national group. But what is the nature of the responsibility of
the German people during the 1930s and 1940s? And how would you
describe the responsibility of the American people in the 1960s
and 1970s with regard to Vietnam?
For human rights activists, questions such as these have a
particular impact, because we are concerned with getting at the
roots of a given social problem. So, we must point out the
source of a crime against humanity, a genocide, or an
environmental rape, for example, and figure out effective ways
to work against these evils.
If you accept as part of the definition of fascism as a social
movement that it involves mass support, then the implication of
this is that a mass of people are responsible for that fascism.
I can never forget that people are just people, inclined to
take care of themselves before taking care of others. Religion
and philosophy tell us not to behave that way, but we don't
listen. Or we try, but it's hard. My point here is that I find
it understandable when people keep their heads down while crimes
are going on. I just wish they wouldn't.
Back in October I was sitting in the old section of Sarajevo
with my friend Hikmet, the Višegrad
activist I've mentioned before. In that city, terrible abuses
took place in 1992, with mass expulsion, mass execution,
throwing people into the Drina River and shooting them, and
locking people in houses and setting them on fire. For all
practical purposes Višegrad,
whose population was once more than fifty percent Muslim, is now
empty of Muslims.
Hikmet told me, "I believe that the people of Višegrad
are guilty. Višegrad is a
small town. Everyone knew what was happening. Everyone knew who
was running things. No one did anything. Now, someone could at
least be anonymously informing the authorities about the mass
graves. Someone did that in Foča and 55 remains were found. But
no one has done that in Višegrad.
They are all guilty. I think Višegrad
should be punished. If we [the Bosniak population of Višegrad]
are not allowed to live there, the people of Višegrad
should not be allowed to live well. And they aren't -
people are leaving."
These were the words of Hikmet. When he spoke of punishing the
entire town of Višegrad because they
were "all guilty," I felt uncomfortable because I oppose
collective punishment on principle. This tactic, used in war and
in low-intensity conflicts over the millennia, has been
outlawed, but it is still widely practiced.
I contemplate my own involvement in wrongs that are being
done, for example, in the vast US financial support for Israel's
atrocious, long-term mistreatment of the Palestinians. I don't
like to feel guilty and I don't respond well to shaming. But I
am embarrassed by US policies in general. I prefer to ward off a
sense of guilt by being responsible, by trying to take
responsibility, as an activist, to make these things stop.
Other human rights activists that I know have different answers.
One prominent leftist commentator, John Gerassi, was a professor
at Queens College in New York a couple of decades ago when I
studied there. He told me, "The IRA has the right to attack
British civilians because they are upholding a fascist regime in
I wasn't comfortable with this reasoning. And for that matter,
the Palestine solidarity organization that I work with
explicitly condemns the targeting of civilians as a tactic, as
perpetrated by any side.
I had the chance to talk to Hikmet about these same questions
again a few weeks later, and he had the opportunity to
elaborate. I said, "Aren't we Americans just as guilty with
regard to Palestine as the Serbs of Višegrad
were for what happened in 1992? It's being done with our
Hikmet answered, "You can't compare Americans'
responsibility in Palestine with the local Serbs' responsibility
in Višegrad. You don't see what's going on directly. You didn't
witness what happened in Fallujah, in Iraq. In Višegrad, people
saw the houses burning. These things happened in their own
neighborhoods. People who live there are directly responsible
for what happened because no one has come forth to say who
robbed the people, and who burned the houses."
Q: Are you saying that people know what happened and who did
A: "Višegrad is a small place, especially the center of town
where some of these things happened. The deportations happened
from the center of the city. They would bring in five or six
buses, round people up, and deport them. Say you're a Serb and
you're going to the store to buy eggs and bread. That Serb saw
his neighbor being expelled. He knows who drove that bus. How is
it possible to do nothing, and to say nothing, if you knew that
neighbor for thirty years?
Annual commemoration of
house-burning and massacre at Bikavac, Višegrad
"There were a couple of cases where some Serbs said to their
neighbors, 'There will be killing tomorrow.' Someone took and
guarded some Muslim children for a year, and took care of them.
"In another situation, there were 25,000 people who took part in
the conquest of Srebrenica. Ok, their children didn't understand
what those soldiers were doing. But didn't any of their wives
ask what they were doing, what they had done?
"On the 17th of July in 1995 [after the fall of
Srebrenica], civilians came to Srebrenica and looted the town.
There were grandmothers who came and carted televisions away in
"You can't compare that kind of direct involvement and guilt to
the responsibility of the Americans for what's going on in
Palestine or Iraq. A better comparison would be what happened
when the Japanese were rounded up in the US during World War II
and taken off to the internment camps. How did people react
"I would like to see those Serbs of Višegrad punished, not to be
able to live well, at least economically. Their hope is that
tourism will save Višegrad. We can campaign against that
tourism. They are creating a 'new Višegrad,' one that has erased
any influence from the Ottoman period.
"In Višegrad the komunalci, the city sanitation agencies,
were those who cleared away the bodies from the streets. This
was an institutionalized project, coordinated by a bureaucracy.
And in Vlasenica there are official, stamped documents ordering
the war crimes.
"Whoever wanted to leave Višegrad had to get a stamped document
of permission to leave. There were only three officials who
could provide this document. There was one family that tried to
stay, by signing a document of loyalty to SDS. They signed. They
were killed about a month later. One of the children escaped
with that loyalty document, that's how we know about it.
"So you can understand why I don't think people are innocent
there. Everyone in the municipal infrastructure was involved.
And in the hospital, doctors refused to treat wounded Muslims.
Some Muslims were taken away from the hospital and killed. There
was one man who escaped from the hospital, through a window,
that's how we know these things happened."
I have an old friend from Germany who I met in Bosnia - at
Srebrenica - about ten years ago. We still get together on
occasion. Hessie was born before World War II and remembers some
of that war. She told me that when she first came to Bosnia,
very soon after the end of the war, she felt "at home." She
thought about it and realized that the post-war smells brought
her back to her childhood, to those smells from her
post-war experience. Hessie noted that for her, being in Bosnia
has been "a kind of therapy."
Hessie also told me that after World War II, "in world opinion,
it was not permissible to acknowledge that Germans, not even
those who were children, had suffered, and to some extent that
is still the case." But those who know anything about life in
Germany during and after the war know that Germans suffered, and
that they were living in cities of rubble after the war, just
like my friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina did. Many Germans -
literally millions from the eastern regions of Europe - had been
displaced or expelled as well.
This is interesting to me not just because it is a German
experience, but also because it is about trauma, victimology,
and guilt. Hessie experienced strange things after the war. She
said, "I remember that I lost my sense of taste, and I couldn't
feel anything. Those feelings come back. But it's a mechanism to
remind you that something very painful is happening, and you
need to protect yourself from that pain in order to be able to
function, and I remember when I was just the age of five or six,
when I saw the young schoolgirls in their uniforms in a parade.
I knew that it would be difficult for me to escape doing this,
and I was in a panic because I already knew that I hated that
uniformed look and I hated having to march in line with others."
Hessie faced those feelings along with confronting the guilt of
Germany for what was done in World War II. She said, "I tried to
find my way to cope with the collective guilt. I asked, 'why am
I blamed?' And at that time, already there was a return of the
extreme right-wing. As a teenager, I made a decision - and I
don't know how many of my generation did so - that I accepted
"I knew that the collective blame didn't refer to me personally.
But you have to take responsibility in the name of your people
for the consequences of what happened, even though you weren't
"I didn't feel guilty, but I accepted being treated this way,
being blamed as a German, even threatened as a German, at the
age of seven. My response was not to react as I was expected to
- and then to show that some Germans were different."
Hessie talked about that point where people make the choice,
consciously or not, of supporting fascism. She said, "People
don't remember what happened, what their role was. They were
normal, lived normal lives, and then at some point they made a
jump to supporting the evil. It's a decision that people made,
and they should remember and examine how that was made. If they
don't examine and recover this memory, then it can be repeated.
"I had to know why I felt that way, I had to remember to go back
in time. I made the personal decision to do this. I don't know
why I did this, and others didn't."
Hessie referred to the "Milgram experiment" on obedience to
authority figures, familiar to everyone who has taken a
Psychology 101 class. In that experiment, the subject believed
that he or she was administering painful, progressively
higher-voltage shocks to someone, to "encourage a learning
process." The experiment consistently brought results of over
sixty percent compliance to the end of the test. The conclusion
was, roughly, that people tend to forfeit their their personal
responsibility to authority. Anyone who observes mass political
behavior over a longer period of time would probably agree with
the conclusion of the Milgram test.
Hessie noted, "Even if you take responsibility for your actions
once in such a situation, you can't take it for granted that you
will be strong enough do so again under other circumstances."
The people I mentioned above who "keep their heads down" have
also relinquished their personal responsibility. They are Damir
Arsenijević's "expressionless remainder" that I mentioned in my
second (Tuzla) report. They are the people everyone in Bosnia
mentions who, if faced with the threat of losing their jobs keep
their heads down.
Recently I remarked to someone that the problems of the world
exist because "adults act like children; they don't take
responsibility for their behavior." Well, that person was a
mother and she quickly set me straight about children. Children
do take responsibility - to the extent that it is within their
power. Children are learning, and growing into their
responsibilities gradually. Ok, but that doesn't get adults off
the hook. Adults need to keep growing and to realize that the
whole world - from the polar ice cap to Srebrenica - is their
moving along in the defense phase of his trial, continues to
stand facts on their head. I suppose that's the only hope he has
of ever walking free again.
In late October one witness for the defense, a former operations
officer in the 1st Romanija Brigade, testified that
the Army of the Republika Srpska never launched any attacks on
Sarajevo - it just defended itself, only shelling military
targets in self-defense.
Another witness discussed the bombing of the Vijećnica or Town
Hall. This building in the old part of Sarajevo, served as
Bosnia's national library. In August of 1992 it was bombed and,
along with a million books, went up in flames. The witness
stated that the Vijećnica was being used as an ammunition depot
- but that he doubted that it was shelled at all, "because the
fire had spread from the ground up and not from the roof down."
On the other hand, meanwhile, in Belgrade the valiant women's
organization Women in Black held a demonstration on November 9th.
On this day of anti-fascism (the anniversary of Kristallnacht)
they expressed a message against denial in an action they named
"I Admit." They carried banners that read, "I admit that Serbia
was the aggressor against Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and
Kosovo; that I am a Serb; that genocide was committed in
Srebrenica; that Draža Mihailović was a war criminal; and that
Kosovo is independent."
President of Women in Black Staša Zajović stated, "For us it's
very insulting that they [promoters of the political
rehabilitation of Draža Mihailović] are equating the fascists
and the anti-fascists, that is, the Partisans and the Chetniks.
I see this as a very dangerous tendency to revise the history of
World War II." She also criticized President of Serbia Tomislav
Nikolić for denying war crimes at Srebrenica.
I received this from one (former) recipient of my postings:
Please take my name off all your mailing lists. I am a Serb and
I do not wish to receive
your one-sided, biased and offensive reports about Serbs.
(Even seeing the name "Republika Srpska" painted on the trains
Thanks, X. X.<<
I will argue with anyone who asserts that I am "anti-Serb" - if
there's any chance we can have a conversation.
Prijedor: About the White Armband Commemoration
In my previous report, about Prijedor, I mentioned a comment
that downplayed the importance of the "International White
Armband Day" which took place on May 31st of this
year. In response to my posting of that comment, I received a
note amending and correcting it. Some of the information I
conveyed about the commemorative activity was one person's
opinion, not representative of the people who were actually
involved in the action.
For background: the day's event was designed to remember the day
when "the Bosnian Serb authorities in Prijedor issued a decree
for all non-Serbs to mark their houses with white flags or
sheets and to wear a white armband if they were to leave their
houses. This was the first day of a campaign of extermination
that resulted in executions, concentration camps, mass rapes and
the ultimate removal of more than 94 percent of Bosnian Muslims
and Bosnian Croats from the territory of the Prijedor
municipality." (This quote is from the article "Genocide: A Day
to Stand against Denial, and Be Aware of How Its Seeds Are
Planted," by Tanya Domi, June 1, 2012. See
The writer of the comment that I received pointed out that, in
fact, the White Armband Day action prompted media coverage in
many parts of the former Yugoslavia and abroad, thus directing
much-deserved attention to the campaign for memorialization of
Omarska and the other crimes against humanity that took place in
Furthermore, I heard from Edin Ramulić. I had reported on my
conversation with him, describing the work of the organization
Izvor. He disagreed with the assessment that the white armband
commemoration was not valuable to the memory of war crimes in
Prijedor, and he also informed me that the event was, in fact,
prominently commemorated in the town itself, and not only
Regarding the contribution of Prijedor's citizens abroad, Edin
said, "Our most valuable human capacity is in the Diaspora, and
we are not in a situation, on our own, to deal with the results
of the war without the people of the Diaspora."
For more on the white armband event, see
White Ribbons Against Genocide Denial, Balkan Insight, May
For good photos of the
armband action in various parts of the world, see also these
Meanwhile, in Bosnia-Herzegovina some political developments are
taking place that threaten to be more far-reaching and damaging
to the state than anything that happened in the October
elections or, for that matter, anything else that has taken
place in Bosnia in quite some years.
The two fake Social Democrat Parties have made a deal. The SDP
(mainly Bosniak, though ostensibly anti-nationalist Social
Democrat Party headed by Zlatko Lagumdžija,
and the SNSD, Alliance of Independent Social Democrat Parties,
headed by Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, met a couple
of times towards the end of last month and arranged to take
several steps to weaken the state government. The threatened
moves have been described as a way of turning the state of
Bosnia-Herzegovina into a "union of entities," i.e.,
definitively moving state power (and its financial resources) to
the entity level.
The background leading to Lagumdžija's
capitulation to Dodik is interesting. I say capitulation
because, once upon a time, the SDP was at least rhetorically a
"pro-Bosnian" party, that is, one that advocated the unity of
the country and a strengthening of the state government. Dodik
has, for quite some time, advocated devolution of state power to
the entity level - and quite often, even the dissolution of the
state and the secession of the Republika Srpska. This is his
open, long-term goal and weakening of the state is a step along
In September, Dodik called for the removal of Lagumdžija
as Minister of Foreign Affairs at the state level, due to an
insignificant infraction that Dodik opportunistically built up
into a "federal case." The threat of his eventual removal was
real; the SDA, which Lagumdžija
had jilted last summer (see my first posting in this series),
was also ready to remove Lagumdžija
for its own reasons.
As it happened, after much threatening, Lagumdžija
was not dismissed, but a lower SDP official was removed as
deputy speaker of the Parliament. By all appearances Lagumdžija's
preservation as foreign minister was the result of a "murky
political trade-off," as one commentator put it.
At the end of the month, after a number of meetings between the
SDP and the SNSD, the two parties came out with a statement
announcing their agreement on a number of changes. Here's a
quick list of them:
--Transferring the process of appointment of prosecutors and
judges from the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council to the
--Introducing closed lists in the elections and removing the
centralized function of vote counting, leaving that task to be
performed exclusively at the municipal level.
--Lowering reserve holdings requirements for the Central Bank
and making it responsible for debts of the entities.
--Allotting 100 million KM of the income of the Elektroprenos
electrical transmission company to the entities.
--Elimination of the Law on Conflict of Interest
There's more (eighteen points in all), but I don't want to go
too deep into this. However, I should explain the ramifications
of the points listed here.
1. Transfer of the process of appointment of state prosecutors
from the High Court and Prosecutorial Council to the state
--This politicizes the function of the state prosecutors by
taking their appointment out of the hands of an impartial body.
Essentially, the dominant parties, presently the SDP and the
SNSD, will appoint those officials. This creates political
control over a function that should be non-political. If such a
move goes through, it will eliminate the possibility of
prosecution of cronies of those high in government. A good
example would be Naser Kelmendi, close to Fahrudin Radoncic.
Radoncic is being considered for appointment to state-level
Minister of Security. If this appointment goes through, and if
the new arrangement for appointment of state prosecutors is
established, then one of the biggest drug-runners in the Balkans
will be able to return to Bosnia without concern for his freedom
(see my first report on this business).
2. Introducing closed lists in the elections and removing the
centralized function of vote counting, leaving that task to be
performed exclusively at the municipal level:
--"Closed lists" means that when you vote, you vote for the
whole party ticket and not for individuals in the party. To
date, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, voters have had to vote for one
party, but they have been able to choose their preference of
candidates within that party. Instituting closed lists gives the
party more control over its members, creating more conformity.
Most of the political parties in BiH were already replicas of
the old socialist model (without the socialism) of autocracy.
The SDP is a very good example, and has lost most of its
independent-minded members. Now the rest will be forced to march
Referring to party members who conform to the dictated positions
of the leadership, someone said, "It's not that they're afraid
to say what they think. It's that they're afraid to think."
Furthermore, abolishing the central vote-counting office
drastically increases the possibility for electoral corruption,
because it is much easier to manipulate the count at the local
level. That's just too much fragmentation for electoral monitors
to control efficiently.
3. Lowering reserve holdings requirements for the Central Bank
and making it responsible for debts of the entities:
--The advocates of the package of SDP-SNSD proposals have
characterized it as primarily involving steps to improve the
economy and to make it work more efficiently. This move allows
the Central Bank of Bosnia to provide credit, based on state
reserve funds, to the entity governments. It also allows the
Central Bank to purchase bonds from those governments. This is
being proposed, among other things, because the country's
commercial banks have stopped buying entity-backed bonds due to
their lack of confidence in the economy. This move would
essentially "entitize," that is, deliver to the entities, the
funds that are customarily protected at the state level. In
plainer English, it's a hijacking.
4. Allotting 100 million KM of the income of Elektroprenos to
--Elektroprenos is a state-level company, in function since
2006, that is responsible for the transmission of electric
power. The company sends electric power from its source to the
national grid and to neighboring countries. It makes a lot of
money, and some of that has been sitting around unallocated. The
SDP-SNSD agreement bequeaths about forty percent of those idle
funds to the entities, and the rest, around 156 million KM,
would go to investment projects. The idea has been criticized as
a way to "patch the entity budgets." Both international
officials and the Federation Minister of Energy, Mining, and
Industry have called for reform in the company's investment plan
before its earnings are plundered.
5. Elimination of the Law on Conflict of Interest:
--Removing this law would make it possible, for example, for
owners or directors of large companies to simultaneously occupy
high political functions in related ministries. This would
obviously make it possible for the level of corruption in the
country to be increased even beyond its present level.
This rather shocking package of proposals essentially works to
remove the governmental competencies that have been established
at the state level - as the result of quite some struggle -
devolving them to the entity level. For Dodik, this is a step
towards secession of the Republika Srpska, his open goal. For
is a bald-faced capitulation, since he has ostensibly always
been "pro-Bosnia." One newspaper heading read, "Lagumdžija
has lost his compass."
The sellout of Lagumdžija
might be breathtaking to some, given his perceived affiliation
with progressive ideals. But his power-mongering has actually
been evident for quite some years to those familiar with the
SDP's autocratic - let's say neo-Titoist - way of functioning.
Besides taking a large step towards "entitizing"
Bosnia-Herzegovina, the deal also strengthens "party-ocracy" -
rule of the party to the detriment of democratic functions.
Finally, it robs from state resources to fund the entities - and
a huge amount of those robbed funds will probably be raked off
by powerful corrupt interests in the entities - giving the
entity leaders more space to maneuver without engaging in any
For international consumption, Dodik and Lagumdžija
have fluffed up the deal by presenting it as a solution to
various economic ills and as a long-awaited step towards
political harmony. International officials will only accept it
as such if they are willing to watch Bosnia-Herzegovina continue
to fail (more on this below). The Norwegian and Swedish
Ambassadors were quick to condemn the weakening of the judicial
and prosecutorial functions, however, since they have donated
heavily to preserve the autonomy of the council.
International response from other corners has not been strong.
But domestically, there has been a response of great outrage
from all parties that are not involved in coalition-forming with
the SDP and SNSD. (On the other hand, the leading Croat
nationalist parties have signed on to the package.) Addressing
the problem of party rule, one commentator stated that in the
future, Bosnia-Herzegovina will look more like North Korea than
some European state.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union High
commissioner for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton visited
Bosnia-Herzegovina at the end of last month. The top diplomats
of the EU and America, particularly Clinton, had stern words for
the leaders of Bosnia.
Clinton said (as paraphrased by one news report), "Ethnic
leaders - Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats - must stop hobbling
each other and agree to reform the complicated, inefficient
governing system put in place by the international community to
end the 1992-95 war."
And this: "Bosnia has no time to waste on unproductive
discussions ... Political leaders must do what the majority of
citizens in this country wants, and that is Euro-Atlantic
integration," Ashton said. (Both quotes are from "Clinton warns
Bosnian Serbs against secession rhetoric," Deutsche
Presse-Agentur, October 20, 2012.)
Clinton and Ashton reminded the leaders of Bosnia that they were
"in danger of lagging behind neighboring countries" in the EU
accession process due to their failure make progress on a list
of conditions for EU membership. Commentators in the media
remarked about the dysfunctionality of the Bosnian state.
The diplomats' admonitions, as usual, had no noticeable effect
on the behavior of Bosnia's leaders. I would say that they were
not expected to have an effect, because similar statements over
the past six years have not been effective either. I would also
dispute the statement that Bosnia is a dysfunctional state. It
would be more accurate to say that Bosnia is a "functional
Just in the way, for example, that poverty has a function in
America, political chaos in partitioned Bosnia functions quite
well for the profiteer elite that cooperates behind the scenes
to keep the country exactly where it is. I think this series of
reports has illustrated that statement.
In other words, it works for the leaders. They are comfortable,
and therefore they won't listen to Clinton and Ashton and things
won't change, at least not because of a repetitious diplomatic
Furthermore, Clinton and Ashton must know these things. I
believe that international officials are intelligent people and
that they are generally well informed. So if they are talking to
the wall and saying useless things like, "Bosnia has to shape
up," well, they are not doing so out of carelessness or
Why then do they bother? My suspicion is that it is a charade
for the purpose of appearances.
I was talking with Kurt Bassuener about this earlier in the
month. We talked about the motivation behind the international
community's ineffective approach towards BiH and its leaders.
The international community is aware of the inherent
dysfunctionality of the Dayton system, sometimes called the
"Dayton straitjacket." One possible explanation for the
international community's ineffectual role is that it is simply
not able to coordinate its policies, both within the EU and
between the EU and the US.
Kurt pointed out that the international officials have the
attitude "that the leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina have a learning
disability." But, he asserted, "it is they [the internationals]
who have the learning disability."
Is it possible that the international community is so hapless?
One commentator characterized the i.c.'s policies as a
combination of the "grossest incompetence and totally bad
One more point from Kurt on this: he notes that the
international community pretends there is a democracy in
Bosnia-Herzegovina. But then it invites the leaders of the six
parties to Brussels for talks, implicitly acknowledging that
it's an oligarchy (what I and others have called a "party-ocracy")
that runs the country.
Srebrenica Elections Update
As I mentioned at the end of my last report, there is an ongoing
campaign to reverse the results of the October 7th
municipal elections in Srebrenica (see my third report in this
series, about Srebrenica). It is not over yet!
The Coalition for Republika Srpska, advocating for an annulment
of the elections and a re-vote, took its case to the appeals
council of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Last week, the Court
threw the question back to the Central Electoral Commission,
saying that it was within the CEC's authority to resolve the
The CEC had decided before, on a 5-2 vote, that the Srebrenica
elections were performed in a legitimate manner. Now they have a
chance to change their minds and call for another election. It
may happen. Word has it that there is pressure both from Croat
nationalist officials (who are in bed with the Serb
nationalists) and from the SDP (who are apparently, at present,
in the pocket of Dodik) to annul the elections.
Index of previous
journals and articles